UN independent expert voices concerns over the practice of targeted killings

Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

2 June 2010 – A United Nations independent human rights expert today sounded the alarm about the practice of targeted killings, saying it had a tenuous legal basis and could undermine the rules that aim to prevent extrajudicial executions and guarantee people the right to life.

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said in a new report that legal justifications for targeted killings were often based on “excessively broad circumstances” and there was a lack of essential accountability mechanisms to ensure that they were legal.

“In terms of the first problem, there are indeed circumstances in which targeted killings may be legal,” Mr. Alston noted. “They are permitted in armed conflict situations when used against combatants or fighters, or civilians who directly engage in combat-like activities.

“But they are increasingly being used far from any battle zone. The United States, in particular, has put forward a novel theory that there is a ‘law of 9/11’ that enables it to legally use force in the territory of other States as part of its inherent right to self-defence on the basis that it is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban and ‘associated forces’, although the latter group is fluid and undefined.

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defence goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter. If invoked by other States, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos,” Mr. Alston writes in his report to the UN Human Rights Council.

He emphasized that he did not question the seriousness of the challenges posed by terrorism, saying he wholeheartedly condemned actions of al-Qaida and other groups that killed innocent civilians, as well as those that increased the danger of attacks on civilians by hiding in their midst.

“But the fact that such enemies do not play by the rules does not mean that a government can cast those rules aside or unilaterally re-interpret them. The credibility of any government’s claim that it is fighting to uphold the rule of law depends on its willingness to disclose how it interprets and applies the law – and the actions it takes when the law is broken,” according to Mr. Alston.

On accountability, Mr. Alston observed that international law requires that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict.

“The clearest challenge to this principle today comes from the programme operated by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in which targeted killings are carried out from unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. It is clear that many hundreds of people have been killed as a result, and that this number includes some innocent civilians,” Mr. Alston said.

“Because this programme remains shrouded in official secrecy, the international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed.

“In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated,” Mr. Alston said.

He contrasted the lack of accountability during targeted killings to the established practice in the United States Department of Defense, where controversial military decisions can be reviewed.

“While it is by no means perfect, the United States military has a relatively public accountability process, as demonstrated earlier this week by its report on the incident in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, in which at least 23 civilians were killed based on erroneous intelligence from surveillance drone operators,” Mr. Alston said.

“Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programmes that kill people in other countries,” Mr. Alston added.

The Special Rapporteur reports to the Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva, and serves in an independent and unpaid capacity.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UN rights expert voices concern over use of unmanned drones by United States

Related Stories